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Last week, the investigative news organization the Intercept issued a big report on the failures in the Obama Administration’s drone assassination program. The report — based on leaked military data and classified government documents — shows that as many as 90 percent of U.S. drone killings in a five month period did not hit the intended target. Jeremy Scahill was the lead reporter of “The Drone Papers” report. He joined On Point host Tom Ashbrook on October 21, 2015 to talk about what he and his colleagues found during their investigation. Listen to the full interview above. Below are selected transcribed excerpts from the conversation.
TOM ASHBROOK (TA): Give us the headlines. Where did this come from, all of this flood of information? This is a big report you’ve put out. What do we most need to know about what’s in there?
JEREMY SCAHILL (JS): Right. This is about 90 pages of secret and top secret documents from a whistleblower within the intelligence community who worked on the U.S. drone program and the so-called high value targeting program, what we call the assassination program. The first drone strike outside of Afghanistan occurred in November of 2002 and it wasn’t until May of 2013 that a sitting president actually gave a formal address on this. So, it’s been shrouded in secrecy. And what these documents reveal is that the claims that the United States makes about the precision of the strikes, about the care that they take in developing the targets to make sure that they’re hitting the right people. That there’s a lot of problems with that narrative.
As you mentioned In Afghanistan, during one very intense targeted killing assassination campaign, 90 percent of the people who were killed in so-called targeted operations were in fact not the intended target of the strikes. What these documents also show is this sort of bureaucracy of assassination. That it has President Obama at the top of the chain directly authorizing every target that is set to be killed by the elite joint special operations command. It’s effectively, Tom, a parallel system for sentencing people to death except it doesn’t involve the courts at all.
TA: What does this whistleblowing report tell us we should be thinking about when we hear news of drone strikes?
JS: Well, most Americans, according to all available polling data, have no problem with the drone program. In fact, they support it — including self-identified liberal Democrats. And part of that is as a result of the persuasiveness and the popularity within his own party of President Obama. And it’s not, Tom, that there aren’t dangerous people who have been killed in drone strikes. What we show, though, is that many of the people that they’re developing as targets, their identities aren’t necessarily well-known. We are targeting them based on signals intelligence — either intercepting their phone calls, intercepting their emails, looking at their metadata patterns. Or we’re basing it on intelligence given to the United States by foreign partners who have their own agenda.
And so if you take a step back and look at the broad view of what these documents show, they show that our very lethal drone program is relying on less than ideal intelligence and at times intelligence blatantly fed to us so we will kill a political opponent of a dictator — like the former dictator of Yemen.
So, you can take a moral position about drones or assassination, but there’s also a tactical criticism of this program that comes not from flaming liberals, but from conservative military figures. And they’re saying- Look. When we kill people in a drones strike, we can’t ask them questions, we can’t understand their networks, and it ultimately harms counterterrorism efforts.
TA: I mean, I think support of this is based — obviously people don’t want American troops in harm’s way, but also on a sense that this is effective. If I’ve got this right between January 2012 and February 2013, I’m reading here — U.S. drone strikes in northeastern Afghanistan killed more than 200 people. Only 35 of whom were the intended targets.
JS: Right. And I think President Obama has been very effective of convincing people of what you just said — that the alternative to drone strikes would be full-on invasion. And, of course, that’s a false choice. I mean, under the Clinton Administration — and given, this was before 9/11 — they viewed terrorism as a law enforcement issue. And terrorists were criminals. It wasn’t all of a sudden we’re at war around the world, and we need to fly in our robots and send in special-ops troops all the time.
I believe that we are making more new enemies than we are killing actual terrorists that represent an imminent threat to the United States, which is what the standard supposedly is. And I think we’ve hit a point where we really need to step back and say who have we actually killed here, and how many enemies have we made in the process?
TA: I want to bring you back from that big theme to more of the detail that you’ve learned here. The reporting here that you’re bringing out saying that the situation could be worse in Yemen, in Somalia where there are fewer special operations teams on the ground. I mean it can almost as though this is just shotgun, not rifle targeting.
JS: Well, I think that’s an effective way of putting it.
I mean, the other thing, to be more specific here is that what the documents show is that when they kill unknown people, no matter who they are, the default is to categorize them as enemies killed in action. Unless evidence posthumously emerges to prove that they weren’t in fact a terrorist. It’s sort of turning international humanitarian law upside down and turning basic concepts of justice upside down when you’re saying well, we’re going to assume these people we killed are terrorists unless a journalist or a human rights group proves otherwise.
And, you know, these statistics that we’re talking about right now are from Afghanistan — where the U.S. does have spies, where we do have on the ground assets, where we do have the ability to partner with local forces. In Yemen and Somalia we have far less ability to get human intelligence, so we’re basing it on pretty unreliable metadata. (…) It’s a huge leap of faith, and like our source says — it gives people running the program that they have God-like powers.
TA: Your source telling you about an “outrageous explosion of watch listing”. I want you to tell us what that is (…) This source, not into this program at all --
JS: Well, this source was very much into it and a supporter of it at the beginning. And then had a turn of heart. (…) I think a lot more people who worked on this program are going to start coming forward and say we’re a part of something that not only was wrong, but probably is harming our national security, not enhancing it.
TA: There’s a pretty high bar, here- Obama has said that we do this against “terrorists that pose a continuing imminent threat”. “Near certainty” that no civilians will be killed. What have you found?
JS: (…) Our documents do show a very thick bureaucratic process that involve a lot of entities signing off on the targets all the way up to the Secretary of the Treasury is in on the penultimate meeting before President Obama signs the death warrant of someone in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere. And so that does exist and I think that President Obama is not blatantly trying to lie to the American people — but when you look at the policy of signature strikes, where they’re killing people...
TA: What does that mean? Signature strikes?
JS: So, there are two kinds of basic strikes. One is a personality strike, i.e. the strikes that killed Anwar Al-awlaki, the American born cleric that praised al Qaeda and was killed in a drone strike in 2011. But a signature strike is when you don’t know the identity of the people that you’re targeting and you’ve developed the sort-of pattern of who do they text message? What emails are they using? Where do they live?
TA: They just look like terrorists- or seem like—
JS: Right. And, you know, it’s called in some circles crowd-killing. Where you basically say okay, you’ve got a group of seven military aged-males, which can be anyone basically anyone over the age of 15 and their cell phones have all been in contact with people we know are bad guys. Let’s just take them all out.
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